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Is climate change on the clock? It's a double-edged sword

Creative Commons image courtesy of Moyan Brenn/Flickr

Creative Commons image courtesy of Moyan Brenn/Flickr


By Chris Scott
Chief Meteorologist
@ChrisScottWx
Friday, October 11, 2013, 10:36 AM

A study published Wednesday in the journal Nature shows the double-edged sword of simplifying complex science – in this case the impact of climate change.

The study out of the University of Hawaii estimates the year in the future when even the coldest years will be warmer than any year we’ve experienced in the past 150. This is a way of putting a date on what is known as a ‘climate departure.’ 

The plus side to doing this is it gives an answer; the year in the future when we will have gone beyond the recent historical bounds of climate variability.

In Toronto’s case, that magic year is estimated to be 2049, if current greenhouse gas emissions continue. This makes it pretty easy to have a dinner table conversation about the subject.

Someone who is 13 now will live in a different climate before turning 50, without having to move.

But the problem with this approach is twofold. 

First, giving a single year implies precision in the prediction. It appears as if there is a perfect blueprint of how the next 50 to 100 years will unfold in the world’s climate. In fact, there are a range of projections for future climate scenarios.

No question, this is serious stuff: the world is warming and will continue to warm. However, the precise impacts of climate change on humans are not etched in stone.

For example, how much will human adaptation blunt the impact? 

Secondly, giving a date implies that something will happen on that date.

We all crave certainty in life. Knowing exactly when something will happen allows us to plan effectively. So, what happens when a study comes out that says a given city will have a new climate by a certain date? The message is oversimplified and sometimes even twisted into something unrecognizable.

A reputable American news outlet reported that cities would be devastated by the dates given in the studies.

Wow, that would make me rethink my RSP strategy! Live it up while you can, eh?

Nothing has really changed in the scientific community’s collective knowledge on climate change. The world overall is warming, will continue to warm, and we are responsible for the majority of this short-term variability. There will be significant consequences to this over the next century.

There is no date at which any given city or region will become uninhabitable. 

However, the human footprint will continue to press against -- and ultimately crush -- some fragile ecosystems. More science needs to be done on quantifying impacts, but debating whether climate change is occurring is a waste of time. Now, it’s about planning and adapting. This study made a valiant attempt to quantify climate change in a relatable way, but we need to be careful not to oversimplify such a complex and important subject that affects us all.

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